Network Pilot Casting InterviewsSpring arrived yesterday, bringing the end of the annual two-month mad dash known as pilot casting season. Heading into pilot season this year, there was a lot of concern that the proliferation of original scripted programming on cable and digital platforms would put an additional strain on broadcast pilot casting, further depleting the talent pool. Going head-to-head with the casting of more than a dozen cable and digital pilots/series — including multiple-pilot slates on TNT, Amazon and FX and high-profile series on Viola DavisNetflix, USA and WGA America — the broadcast networks escaped mostly unscathed, successfully casting more that 80 pilots/direct-to-series, with only three comedy pilots rolled because of difficulties finding actors.

RelatedPilot Season 2014: The Overachievers

This pilot season brought an additional wrinkle, with Fox’s Kevin Reilly declaring in January that his network plans to bypass the traditional pilot cycle going forward. There were more straight-to-series and limited/event series orders this season, and several networks started casting a handful of projects early. But overall, it was mostly business as usual, with thousands of castings sessions crammed into eight weeks that resulted in the casting of more that 1,500 roles. We saw Oscar winners and happyendingsnominees like The Help‘s Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (plus Halle Berry earlier in the season) come to television, TV stars like David Schwimmer, Patricia Arquette, Mary-Louise Parker and Josh Duhamel make a return, and the casts of cancelled shows Happy Endings and Nikita be sought after.

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Related: Primetime Pilot Panic!

As we close the book on this year’s casting season, let’s hear from the women (and a man) who were in the middle of it all, leading the casting charge at the broadcast networks. I asked the exhausted heads of casting (“I need a vacation,” one of them exclaimed) Tess Sanchez (Fox), Keli Lee (ABC), Grace Wu (NBC) and Peter Golden (CBS), plus Lori Openden (the CW), whose network doesn’t compete directly with the Big 4 as it targets younger talent, to answer questions about the challenges of this pilot season, progress on cast diversity, their and their competitors’ biggest casting coups, the season’s biggest discoveries, and the toughest roles and types to cast. (Find out how many child actors Fox saw for the Bruce Wayne role in Gotham.) Here are their answers:

tesssanchezTess Sanchez, SVP Casting, Fox

Was casting this year as, less or more difficult than 2013?
This season has been more challenging in certain aspects, but also easier since we’ve transitioned out of a traditional “pilot season” into a year-round development schedule. We now have more flexibility than the 22 episode/7 year commitment we required in previous years and access to talent who were previously uninterested in television but who are now open to the conversation. However, we – and everyone else in the business – also face a new set of challenges in making series regular deals with scheduling and exclusivity now that actors are working in a variety of platforms in front of and behind the camera.

Your biggest casting coup
Without question, Anna Gunn. On the heels of Breaking Bad, she easily had her pick of roles this season, so you can imagine how elated we were when she chose to play Detective Ellie Miller in our event series, Gracepoint.

Your biggest discovery
On the drama side, I’d say it’s Genevieve Angelson — she is absolutely radiant and scene-stealing in her performance as Detective Nicole Gravely in our drama series Backstrom. I believe we will be watching her for a long time. In comedy, it’s Jack Cutmore Scott — as one of the leads of our multi-cam half hour from Matt Hubbard (Cabot College), he gives a truly inspired comedic performance.

Actor on another network’s pilot/straight-to-series you would’ve liked to have
There are two: Rashida Jones (TBS’ Tribeca) and Natasha Lyonne (NBC’s Old Soul). I love them both!

Hardest lead to cast
David MazouzIn our WBTV drama Gotham, we did a national search to find our young Bruce Wayne (who later in the DC comics becomes Batman). Several hundred boys auditioned to play the role. Finding real pathos and depth from a 10-year-boy conveyed in two pages of fake sides (had to keep the script under wraps) was tough. This character needed to break your heart, and have the early ingredients of a hero. The incredibly talented David Mazouz (pictured) had it all in spades.

Hardest type to cast
Damon Wayans Jr……x3. He has now become his own type.

What progress did you make on diversity?
Diversity is already heavily integrated into our development process. Most writers and producers at Fox “get it,” and that’s why we have arguably the most diverse slate of shows and talent on network television.

Related: 2014 Fox Pilots

kelileeKeli Lee, EVP Casting, ABC

Was casting this year as, less or more difficult than last?
We faced numerous challenges this pilot season: limited talent pool prior to the beginning of pilot season, more outlets producing scripted shows during pilot season, and more talent only interested in shorter-order series. Basically, we were competing for the same leading men/women ranging 25-45 years old with greater competition.

Your biggest casting coup
davidschwimmerEven with the limited talent pool, we were able to attract some amazing fresh faces and big names this year, and that in and of itself was a coup. (Some of ABC’s top pilot talent include Viola Davis, David Schwimmer [pictured], Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ryan Philippe, Felicity Huffman, Jennifer Carpenter, David Straithairn and Jack Davenport.)

Your biggest discovery
Sarah Snook (Clementine), Joshua Sasse (Galavant), Karla Souza (How to Get Away, we first saw her from our Latino/Hispanic Global Talent Outreach), Jack Whitehall (American Education)

Actor on another network’s pilot/straight-to-series you would’ve liked to have
Greta Gerwig (CBS’ How I Met Your Dad)

Hardest type to cast
Leading Women 25-45 and Leading Men 30-45

What progress did you make on diversity?
We have cast more diverse actors overall and in more leading and significant roles this pilot season, and to date. We have seven shows with diverse talent as the lead or co-lead: Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross in the Anthony Anderson pilot; Romany Malco in Untitled Kevin Hart; Randall Park and Constance Wu in Far East Orlando (formerly Fresh Off The Boat); John Cho as the male lead in Selfie; Morena Baccarin in Warriors, Odette Annable and Joanna Garcia in The Astronaut Wives Club, etc. We’ve also cast a number of actors from previous ABC Diversity Talent Showcases in series regular roles: Randall Park in Far East Orlando; Kevin Alejandro in Clementine; Pedro Pascal in Exposed; Iris Bahr in Irreversible; Jee Young Han in Agatha.

Related: 2014 ABC Pilots

gracewuGrace Wu, EVP Casting, NBC Entertainment

Was casting this year as, less or more difficult than last?
Casting this year was challenging because so many cable and broadcast networks have been casting since June 2013, so the talent pool was getting seriously depleted by the time we started our process in January 2014. Still, we focused on the best talent available, and I think we have some great actors in place and a lot of fresh faces. It also helps when we lock up talent in hold deals and cast them in our new pilots — for example, Laz Alonso in Mysteries Of Laura and Christian Borle in Lifesaver.

Your biggest casting coup
I think locking up Kate Walsh to develop a script with our comedy development team was a coup. Kate is a real TV star, and it’s great to see her go back to her comedy roots.

Your biggest discovery
mcgunnigle1Stacey McGunnigle (pictured) completely owns the lead role in Ellen More Or Less. Producers and casting directors were tasked with finding a fresh face in this cast-contigent pilot. They really delivered and found someone special.

Hardest type to cast
Hardest type to cast is the 35-45 year old leading man. We all chase the feature names and many remain elusive. Still there are talented and great journeyman actors like Scott Cohen (Coercion) and Ritchie Coster (Babylon Fields) who always deliver and are compelling to watch.

What progress did you make on diversity?
Diversity is still a priority, and I spend a lot of my time during pilot season discussing this with producers and casting directors. It’s more organic when the characters are conceived in the development phase, so we are all targeted with creating a show that is inclusive and looks modern.

Related: 2014 NBC Pilots

Peter Golden, EVP Talent and Casting, CBSpetergolden

Was casting this year as, less or more difficult than 2013?
Every year seems more difficult than the previous year, and this year is no exception. Obviously every project presents its own set of unique challenges. The good news is that the line between so called “feature” actors and “TV” actors has virtually disappeared, so the overall pool of talent includes a lot of exciting choices that may not have been available a few years ago. As challenging as it always is, it’s incredibly exhilarating to work on so many different projects, each with a set of different demands, and each with showrunners, studio execs, casting directors, agents and managers who are passionate about their work, and are all attempting to breathe life into characters on a page. In addition, at this insane time where we need to make instant decisions about actors or risk losing them to the competition, Nina, Wendi, Christina, and our teams have all worked together for many years. We have a real shorthand and rhythm that’s hugely beneficial.

Your biggest casting coup
I’m excited about all of the actors we cast this year but I’m reluctant to talk about what is perceived to be a good “get” or casting coup because it all depends on the right fit and we can’t know that until we see the finished pilot. I’ll be happy to discuss our biggest casting coups when they are on the air next season.

tarverYour biggest discovery
I’m very excited that Drew Tarver (pictured), who came from our Diversity Showcase, is starring alongside Greta Gerwig in How I Met Your Dad.

Actor on another network’s pilot/straight-to-series you would’ve liked to have
I like a number of actors that have ended up on competitive pilots/series, but I always feel that actors end up in the roles they’re meant to have.

Hardest lead to cast
They’re all hard.

Hardest type to cast
Multi-camera comedy male/female lead

What progress did you make on diversity?
Diversity is always an enormous priority for us. Our mandate continues to be casting each project to reflect the diversity of our society as a whole. We are excited that Halle Barry, Maggie Q and Sophie Okonedo are among our new pilot/series leads.

Related: 2014 CBS Pilots

opendenLori Openden, EVP Talent and Casting, The CW

Was casting this year as, less or more difficult than last?
Honestly, this is the best time of year for us. The casting process is really exciting. There’s the potential to find new talent, bring them to the network and create some great television.

Your biggest casting coup
It’s hard to narrow it down. There were several actors who were very in demand among the other networks and for feature films this season, including Ahna O’Reilly (Identity) who was recently in Fruitvale Station; Diogo Morgado (The Messengers), who is currently starring in Son Of God; Jaime Camil, who we cast as a telenovela star in Jane The Virgin, and he is actually a huge telenovela star in Mexico; Jesse L. Martin and Tom Cavanagh, who we cast in The Flash, are both terrific actors who are always in demand.

Your biggest discovery
THE FLASH First ImageWe’re very proud of our record in discovering amazing new talent – actors like Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Nina Dobrev, Stephen Amell, Joseph Morgan, last season Adelaide Kane. This development season, we have several new faces that we’re very proud of including Grant Gustin (pictured), starring as The Flash; Gina Rodriguez, who plays the title character in Jane The Virgin and is terrific; and Jon Fletcher on The Messengers.

Actor on another network’s pilot/straight-to-series you would’ve liked to have
Nicholas D’Agosto, who was cast on How I Met Your Dad, we would have loved to have him. And Kal Penn (CBS’ Battle Creek), who is just great, he’s so funny and can also play dramatic roles.

Hardest lead to cast
Finding the right actress to play the lead character in Rob Thomas’ iZombie was challenging. It needed to be someone who had the strength and humor to play a woman who is secretly a zombie, not an easy task! Rose McIver, who was recently seen on Once Upon A Time and Masters Of Sex, is terrific, we are thrilled we have her.

Hardest type to cast
I think for all of the networks, finding a leading man is traditionally the toughest to cast.

What progress did you make on diversity?
We take diversity in our casting very seriously, it’s important to us that the cast of our shows are representative of what America looks like. And we’re very pleased with the diversity of our ensemble casts this season; this is actually the most diverse group we’ve ever had in our pilots. But it’s something we strive for every year.

Related: 2014 The CW Pilots